The Science of Healing Our Bodies and Minds

Research is unlocking new possibilities in medicine.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

In 1988, 350,000 people contracted polio globally. Thousands died from the disease and tens of thousands more were left with debilitating muscle weakness. That year, the World Health Organization launched a global effort to eradicate the disease through the use of an oral vaccine developed by two scientists. Within three decades, the vaccine helped reduce reported polio cases by 99.99 percent. In 2018, less than 100 people contracted the once widespread disease. The scientific community has a long history of improving human health by bolstering advancements in medicine as humanity grapples with threats to our bodies and minds. Today, scientists at NYU Abu Dhabi continue that legacy in their research in health.

The Winged Killer

In the time it took you to read this far, a child has likely died from malaria. More than 200 million people contract the disease and face illness or, if left untreated, death. Researchers from NYUAD’s Idaghdour Lab have traveled the globe to better understand the ancient disease that continues to challenge modern medicine. Their research on malaria’s complexity could lead to discovering a solution that could finally break the standstill in the malaria epidemic. The disease is complex as it involves interaction of three unique organisms: a protozoan parasite (malaria), a mosquito, and a human. That complexity and its unique transmission has made it one of the longest-lasting diseases recorded, but it could also be the ancient disease's Achilles heel.  

Using extremely large data sets, the lab is delving deep into the genetic mysteries of the disease that can be traced back to 2700BC. Researchers at the lab — headed by Youssef Idaghdour, assistant professor of biology — are taking a multifaceted approach to better understand malaria. Having collected DNA datasets from 150 children in Burkina Faso, one of the countries most affected by the disease, the lab now aims to break down the genetic sequences. The research will help understand the variability involved in a disease that manifests itself in three phases –virus, mosquitoes and hosts. They aim to better understand why malaria infections kill some but leave others with no symptoms at all.

Some researchers in the lab are working on CRISPR genome editing techniques that allow scientists to map and alter certain genetics. This editing could apply to the host, the mosquitoes carrying the disease, or even the virus itself. Their work could lead to the containment, or, possibly, the eradication of the disease that has killed millions around the world.

Smoking Gun

Smoking is one of the world’s biggest public health concerns. On average, smoking kills half its users according to the WHO. NYUAD, in collaboration with the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi, is conducting the first ever mass survey to better understand the causes of non-communicable diseases. As a first in the region, a recent study biochemically verified through self-reported data that tobacco use is significantly higher than previously thought. Smoking cessation is among the major topics in for the Public Health Research Center, the entity behind the study. They are recruiting 20,000 UAE nationals to participate in a long-term survey that could shed light on the health issues in the country and the region.

A recent study by the NYU Abu Dhabi Public Health Research Center revealed that smoking shisha at home exposes children and non-smokers to even more harmful pollutants than secondhand smoke from cigarettes. The lead researcher, Dr Michael Weitzman, professor in the departments of pediatrics and environmental medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, studied three sets of different homes in the UAE. Some had residents who smoked shisha, others that had cigarette smokers, and others still where no one was smoking. All pollutants assessed in the study, including carbon monoxide and various airborne particulate matter, were found to be higher in shisha smoking homes compared to homes where cigarettes were smoked.

Researchers at the center along with recent NYUAD graduates published a paper showing how high school workshops on the risks of smoking led students to make healthier decisions. This, they found during their Capstone project, revealed that it had a bigger impact than workshops on nutrition.

Public Enemy Number One

As global smoking trends decrease, by virtue of targeted national anti-smoking policy and increased awareness of its risks, obesity is on the rise to potentially overcome smoking as the single avoidable cause of death. The Abu Dhabi Public Health Research Center is conducting research on the reasons behind the high prevalence of obesity in the region.  Along with promoting proper diet and exercise as the best solution to reducing obesity, scientists at NYUAD are looking at what other factors are in play that contribute to the complex disorder.

A recent study from NYUAD showed that exposure to arsenic — a common compound present naturally in the Earth’s crust that is lethal to those exposed to high levels  — causes fatty liver disease in zebrafish exposed to lower levels over a longer period. Research by Kirsten Sadler Edepli, associate professor of biology at NYUAD and senior investigator on this study, could explain the prevalence of obesity and diabetes epidemic in the region. Although obesity and diabetes are common risk factors for people to develop the disease, there’s a gap in knowledge to explain why seemingly healthy individuals are contracting it.

Research at NYUAD showed a direct relation between obesity and our intestinal ecosystem, or the good bacteria that lives in our digestive system that helps break down food. The research showed how exposure to antibiotics that changed the gut microbiota actually caused obesity. In a test that was published in Cell, the scientists administered low-dose penicillin to infant mice and found that eventually led to them developing obesity as they matured. The complex intricacies of the disorder is ongoing as the research continues in the mysterious world of the human’s symbiotic relationship with bacteria.

"It will be exciting to explore whether drugs that can modify the epigenome have the potential to induce epigenetic compensation and increase the liver’s ability to regenerate in cases of liver disease or failure.”

Associate Professor of Biology Kirsten Sadler Edepli

The prevention of disease and the maintenance of good bodily health is just one side of overall well-being. Mental health has grown increasingly more prevalent in the health debate in recent years with increasing linkages being made between the human’s physical condition and their psychological well-being. 

Minding our Bodies 

The university is delving deep on the cognitive functionality of the human condition and researching a range of neurological topics including how we sleep, remember, and use language. Although it is unclear whether these functions all impact our bodies, researchers are uncovering some of the deepest mysteries of our brain in a field that science knows less about than space.

Researchers know that people with depression tend to have abnormal sleep patterns. It has also been known for decades that depriving a depressed person of sleep for one night can rapidly alleviate depression. The fact that sleep deprivation leads to rapid alleviation of symptoms further strengthens the link between sleep patterns and depression. Dipesh Chaudhury, assistant professor of biology at NYU Abu Dhabi, studies neural circuits that are related to depression, and the complex relationship this circuitry has with another behavior — sleep.